Gore's 'Transition to a New Era': Democratic Front-Runner for 2000
By Charles Babington
In his victory speech here Tuesday night, Vice President Gore spoke of "an America in transition to a new era."
At that very moment, he was undergoing a seismic political transition of his own. President Clinton had just ended his last campaign. Gore, without saying so, was beginning the long process of staking claim as the Democratic front-runner in the 2000 presidential race.
"He starts a new career today," Clinton-Gore media adviser Bob Squier said this morning, as Gore prepared to return to Washington.
No longer can Gore reply, "one at a time," when supporters shout "2000!" Everyone knows he's running for president, and he brings significantly more stature and experience to the task than he did when he made an ill-fated bid in 1988.
While Gore is hardly the political animal that Clinton is, he has burnished his image by adeptly handling several issues the president has delegated to him, including the environment, streamlining government and dealing with Russia. Gore and his aides say the best way to pursue his presidential ambitions is to continue that close relationship with the president, even with the risk that ethical questions might tarnish Clinton's second term.
"We've developed a friendship that works on every level, right down to the deepest level," Gore said today, rejecting the notion that he might start distancing himself from Clinton. "There will be times when he will ask me to take on new challenges in helping him," Gore said, although he declined to speculate on what they might be.
Several political activists said Gore's strong suit is his image as a serious and substantive vice president who arguably has the closest working ties to a president in modern times. He's wise to stick with that image, they said, and take his political chances on Clinton's popularity in the coming four years.
"He's already become the most powerful vice president in history," Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos said in an interview. "That can only multiply in the second term. The vice president has always known that when the team does well, he does well."
James Thurber, an American University professor who has studied presidents, said: "The vice president is as successful as a president will allow him to be. There's been a special relationship" between Gore and Clinton that, thus far, has helped both men. Gore, 48, can continue to benefit from that relationship, Thurber said, as long as charges about questionable campaign fund-raising and other issues don't drag down the administration.
"If there's a scandal," Thurber said, "then the analogy is Hubert Humphrey and Vietnam." Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president at the height of the war's unpopularity, won the 1968 Democratic nomination but lost the presidential race to Richard M. Nixon.
Gore told reporters today that his goals for the second term come straight from the Clinton-Gore campaign speeches: balancing the budget, cleaning up toxic waste dumps and other environmental blights, and "reforming education and providing the opportunity to go to college to every person in America."
Squier and others who have known Gore for years say he has improved dramatically as a campaigner. In 1988, many felt Gore looked foolish in being led around New York City by then-Mayor Edward I. Koch.
But now, Squier said, "he's had several breakthroughs this year that were really big deals," including the vice presidential debate with Jack Kemp and Gore's generally well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Nonetheless, Gore remains an unfinished politician who sometimes puzzles his own staff. On Monday in Cleveland he delivered a caffeinated speech that so delighted Clinton that the president wondered if he might "blow the roof off." Thirty-six hours later, in his election night victory speech here, Gore appeared wooden as he stabbed at rhetorical flourishes such as, "across America, from the Shenandoah Valley to Silicon Valley."
The two speeches underscore a potential dilemma for Gore. Whenever he unleashes a good speech, which most often happens in a black church or a large rally where crowds cheer lustily and egg him on, listeners are clearly delighted by the man they had expected to live up to jokes about his famous stiffness. But if Gore continues to portray himself as a robotic politician, or to give lackluster performances such as Tuesday night's, he may have trouble convincing voters he's presidential timber.
By taking on substantive governmental duties and performing well in debates, "Gore has raised the bar pretty high," said Doug Schoen, a Clinton-Gore pollster. "He's not stiff. He's a person of depth and substance."
Thurber agreed but said there's an ironic risk if people find out. "He's sort of lowered expectations about him for four years," Thurber said. "Now the spotlight moves to him as the front-runner, and expectations will be high."
The dilemma is not lost on Gore. He told reporters today, "I have grown as a public servant and as a communicator during the campaign." He added, however, "I think I have benefited from low expectations, and don't blow this for me."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company